After Americans endured two decades of continuous depression, war and crisis through the 1930’s and 40’s, they sought a return to normalcy and longed to focus on the more private details of existence. Instead of national objectives, the public concentrated on family, home, and career, while becoming increasingly absorbed in religion.
As the 1950’s saw America in a state of national exhaustion, religion-in-general experienced a surge in popularity. Many critical views were silenced or ignored as people became more accepting of a wide variety of beliefs. While the revival was unexpected and unstructured, several events fueled the movement.
World War II left the country weary and drained. During the four seemingly-endless years of conflict, almost all churches had rallied behind the war effort. Post-war America a burst in prosperity, and with this support, churches expanded. Church attendance soared while their purpose and goals shifted. As all denominations gained a more powerful voice, they used it to increase their role in society. In 1950, several of the oldest Protestant denominations formed the National Council of Churches in order to improve relations with the government, encourage interchurch connections, and promote projects such as Bible translation.1 This organization also helped to do away with the harsh attitudes and antagonism aimed at Catholicism after the war. Toleration and acceptance seemed to be the key to deepened communication between both church and state as well and Protestants and Catholics.
Following World War II, an era known as the Cold War shook American faith in the possibility of a peaceful nation. A war with the Soviet Union looming overhead, the threat of a communist takeover, and the potential for nuclear disaster sent Americans rushing to churches in part to find a sense of stability and security. Survey data shows that Church attendance reached an all-time high 49% of the American population in the mid-1950’s2 while nearly 96% claimed ties to some religious affiliation or another.3 Religion helped them cope with the uncertainty of having to live one of two opposing ways of life; a poverty-stricken, war torn country, or a thriving, peaceful nation with an economy to support their growing families.
Beneath the surface of mainstream optimism due to the booming economy, America’s crises with other countries instilled a sense of urgency concerning salvation. Moral values became somewhat self-indulgent, and self-absorption became characteristic of the religious movement, explaining in part the lack of conflict due to varying beliefs.
While foreign affairs helped to shape religion in the 1950’s, it was perhaps the more informal networks that anchored public interest and in turn became more influential.
A small organization called the National Association of Evangelicals, founded in 1942, united several theological groups in an effort to spread the message of the gospels. They promoted such campaigns as that of Billy Graham, perhaps the most popular evangelist in American history. Graham both warned the nation of the peril they faced due to communism and failing American foreign policy, while also providing them an escape through salvation in Jesus Christ. His combination of religion and public concern set Protestants to action in the effort to “save” America. His rallies attracted crowds upwards of a half million in the mid-1950’s.4
Another man offered a much more relaxed message concerning one’s role in society in relationship to religion. Norman Vincent Peale, a minister from the Reformed Church of America who pastored a church in New York City, preached to large crowds using “psychological, therapeutic, and scriptural elements.”5 Peale encouraged people to practice their faith and visualize how they wanted to live their lives in order to achieve their goals. This approach to religion caused many to call him “the rich man’s Billy Graham.”6 He wrote the book The Power of Positive Thinking, in 1952. “Positive thinking” eased the minds of Americans who remained uncertain about war with the Soviet Union and the permanence of economic expansion in the states.
Catherine Wood Marshall also wrote a book offering realistic insight and moral inspiration. Women were contributing more directly to public life in the 1950’s, and when her husband, minister Peter Marshall, died, she gathered his journals and sermons to publish A Man Called Peter.
Not only were women writing religious books, but Post-war America saw women entering the ministry. Women had made up the majority of members in church congregations for centuries, but few denominations had recognized them as leaders before the 50’s. Conservative churches limited leadership to Bible studies and social programs, but many major denominations joined the Quakers and Pentecostals in ordaining them as ministers.
With an endless reserve of new students and a thriving economy to fall back on, theological schools flourished. Seminaries and other Bible-based schools saw record enrollment. New faculty was added and new areas of study were introduced into the curriculum. Most of these schools became part of the evangelical enterprise, with traveling ministers or radio broadcasts, like those of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. These schools sought to guide the church leaders of the future while also creating a positive public image for evangelism and religious education.
With these new advancements in the Protestant and Catholic churches, also came the growth of other religions. A network called the “Beat Movement” connected young writers who demonstrated a care-free, often reckless approach to both literature and religion. They joined small religious communities called ashrams, where Eastern religions, including Hinduism, Daoism, and Zen Buddhism were explored. Meditation and yoga were widely practiced. Like other groups of their time, they used their religious beliefs as a social stance. Their opposition to government policy and their desire to separate themselves from mainstream social activity was somewhat evident in their religious preferences.
These movements and individuals of the 1950’s have all altered the America in which we live today. One of the most obvious changes that is so often overlooked was the adjustment of the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1954, following a crusade led by the Knights of Columbus,(a Catholic mens’ society), Congress added the words “under God.” Their desire was for the pledge to serve both as a patriotic oath and a public prayer.7 Politicians, however, argue to this day about the constitutionality of endorsing religion in the nation’s pledge. Many of these decisions were made before there was substantial concern surrounding the relationship between church and state, and how much each side should be involved in the other.
At the same time in Washington, after President Eisenhower was elected, the prayer room and the prayer breakfast were established in the Capitol building. Then in 1955, with the support of the president, Congress added the words “In God We Trust” to all paper currency. One year later, the same phrase replaced “E Pluribus Unum” as the nations official motto. Legislators even began to submit Constitutional amendments that ordered Americans to obey “the authority and law of Jesus Christ.”
The government directly fueled the revival in the 1950’s, and the American public fell deeper and deeper into their own interests all the while believing “what is good for one’s own private interest is good for all,”8 as was mentioned to the country by General Motors’ Charles E. Wilson. National needs began to fall by the wayside as personal improvement took over top priority in the American household. Still, spiritual rebirth was the topic of concern in the minds of the American people.
Southern revivalism got a boost with the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. Thousands of black and white Americans alike took part in the movement for justice. The “Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” attended by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., sought to end racial segregation and was fueled by Christian ideals rather than political agenda. Dr. King, a Southern Baptist minister, lead the non-violent undertaking, which lead to a civil rights movement that extended well into the 60’s and 70’s. He urged Americans to “stand up for justice, stand up for truth.”9
Americans felt a sense of moral responsibility in the 1950’s. The revival of the decade, if nothing else, proved there was a civil religion in the nation. Most Americans at the time put faith in four basic points. First, the existence of God; second, a life to come; third, they would be rewarded for the good and punished for their sinful actions; and lastly, that there was no room for religious intolerance if there was to be peace in the nation.10
A change in the religious tone of the country was perhaps most evident in Washington. Even the government and its leaders recognized a “higher law,” and evidence of their dedication to the fusion of religious principles and democratic ideals is evident still today. They believed that a nation with strong values and beliefs would lead to a responsible social system, a strong sense of patriotism and common ideals around which to base strong communities. Such beliefs created an atmosphere that encouraged religious pluralism and as a result the 1950’s saw some of the most rapid spiritual growth in American history to date.